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5 stars

Prior to seeing Moonlight on Saturday, my two “best” pictures for the year were the rousing, throwback to old Hollywood musicals La La Land and the deeply affecting, painfully human Manchester by the Sea.  Last night, Moonlight inexplicably (and awkwardly) won best picture, and I have to say that in the three horse race (actually, four, because Hell or High Water is every bit the film as these three), I would have been happy with any coming out on top.  Moonlight, however, distinguishes itself from the others in a few critical ways.

First, let’s put La La Land to the side, not with short shrift, but simply as a “which one of these doesn’t belong and why?” entrant.  I’m still captivated by Damien Chazelle’s light and vibrant revival of the Hollywood musical, but it is a different animal and one that I think suffered from an early over-exuberance that gave way to more serious and deeper fare, as well as a time-worn presumption that LA would be unable to resist rewarding itself (with the assistance of Price Waterhouse and a befuddled Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, LA almost pulled it off).

Hell or High Water was a sneakily political film with rich turns and deep roots , but ultimately, it was a heist and manhunt pic; Jeff Bridges was a derivation of the Tommy Lee Jones character in No Country for Old Men; and the film was as much about desolate Texas as the characters hurtling towards each other on its dusty roads.

So, my eggs were in Manchester’s basket.  Casey Affleck’s tortured yet reserved and meticulous performance was one of the best I’ve ever see on film, and Kenneth Lonergan’s depiction of what a family means in its whole and then in its shattered parts, along with its stubbornly non-Hollywood ending and countenance, sold me.  Best film of the year.

Then, Moonlight.  The story of a young black kid (Chiron) from Liberty City wrestling with not only a forbidding environment but his own sexuality was tender and poetic.  Also, I found it just a tad more interesting, in that it depicted a world and a struggle not often covered in film, and it elevated restraint and finesse to its highest form.  While not as moving as Manchester, in part due to a more ambitious and necessarily distracting style, the films are very similar in capturing a character at different stages of his life, changed by trauma and haunted by doubt.

The film is also blessed by numerous strong performances.  Though nothing approximating Affleck’s turn, the three actors who play Chiron as a boy, a teen and later as an adult all were deserving of the Best Supporting Actor nod given to Mahershala Ali, who plays the Cuban crack dealer who puts Chiron under his wing.

The quiet, unhurried moments in the three non-musicals are the ones I found most impressive, moments where you filled in the blanks and never felt even nudged to a conclusion or resolution.

I don’t know which of these films is the best of the year, but they are all great.

A haunting, mournful yet cautiously optimistic film.  As with You Can Count on Me, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan depicts family like no one else.  In this family, the protagonist is Casey Affleck, a Boston janitor so emotionally stunted he struggles to maintain a personal conversation longer than a minute, seeking outlet in drinking and getting his ass kicked. He is forced to return to his home town of Manchester due to tragedy, and while there, must confront his unforgiving past.

It’s hard to say enough about Affleck’s performance.  He is required to do so much with so little emotion, yet in a wince, a stare, or a wry smile, he imparts more than he ever could with pages of overt dialogue.  He is ably matched by Lucas Hedges (both are nominated), his teenage nephew, who has been placed in Affleck’s care for a period of time.  Kyle Chandler, as Affleck’s  older brother, exudes responsibility and vulnerability.  Yet, despite the lack of real familial relationships, these three actors seem as if they are indeed brothers. The scene where the adult Chandler and Affleck won’t stop goofing around during a dire time at the hospital (much to the frustration of Chandler’s wife and their gentle, peacemaking father) is foreshadowing for a later rough, jokey and conspicuous dialogue between Affleck and Hedges.

Lonergan provides no easy resolution or pat answers. He stitches the pain of the past in his characters very tightly and eschews melodrama. I kept expecting to be overwhelmed by a moment or a revelation, but really, the entire piece is quietly, almost stealthily moving, a studied portrait on loss and family and life.

I still have a few flicks to see, such as Moonlight and Hacksaw Ridge, and I was over the moon for La La Land, but as of now, this is the best film I’ve seem from 2016.

One nit.  The score, by Lesly Barber, which is orchestral with a lot of strings, and is at times affecting, is at others intrusive and overstated.  In such a restrained film, this was off-putting.

imageA man and his girlfriend attend a dinner party held in the Los Angeles hills by his ex-wife and her new husband for their coterie of friends from the days of their marriage, a marriage that ended two years prior due to a tragic accident.  I will tell you no more save for the following: this is a tense, sharp and often Hitchcockian thriller, it is currently on Netflix streaming, and you should read nothing about it before watching.

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The opening scene of this love letter to Hollywood – a song and dance number on a jam packed LA freeway – is so audacious and expertly rendered that you almost regret its placement, fearing the rest of the film will never be able to match such perfection. When it is followed by another number that takes us from our heroine’s (Emma Stone) apartment to an industry pool party, your fears are alleviated. Thereafter,  the film becomes more personal, relying heavily on the chemistry between Stone and Ryan Gosling (chemistry that was established in a prior film, Crazy Stupid Love) while telling a standard tale of reaching for fame, compromising dreams for money and security, and the wages of those endeavors on true love.

I thought director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash was the best film of 2014, and others clearly trust his judgment, because his second effort is as risky a gamble as you can make – a modern musical. It works on almost every level. As stated, the romantic leads are compelling and it is clear they connect. Stone is notable, near heartbreaking, as the aspiring actress.  The musical numbers are intricate and dazzling. The quieter moments, including several standard taps and waltzes, are beautifully done, and serve not only as support for their love, but as homage to the musicals that came before. And Los Angeles, as a fantastical costar, is charmingly rendered.

Chazelle showed a competency with music and movement in Whiplash but nothing in that film necessarily suggested the ability to stage the intricate, edit-free song and dance numbers that serve as the heart of this film.  Filming a stationary jazz drummer is elemental stuff compared to the sequences in this picture.

It really is a joy. If I have a criticism, it is simply one of imbalance. The first two numbers are so bravura, you end up waiting for one or two more of the same. When they do not appear, it is not a knock on what replaced them. But the tone is quieter, and the story pretty unoriginal. So I found myself waiting for the knockout punch that never comes. That is on me, not Chazelle, as he opted for a more muted, bittersweet conclusion which is affecting in its own right.

Gosling and Stone do all of their own singing; what is on the screen is all the more impressive given the film’s relatively meager $30 million budget; and the movie is shot in Cinemascope, which broadens its impact (unlike Quentin Tarantino’s 70mm The Hateful Eight, Cinemascope is actually suited to this film’s movement and locale). One of the best films of the year.

A very smart, evocative crime spree flick, elevated by a high-minded motive, a feel for the rich texture and other-worldliness of Midwest Texas, soulful performances by lawman Jeff Bridges and dead-ender cowboy Ben Foster, and a subversive sense of humor/political streak.  People screw these films up in any number of ways; by over-elegizing the working man, slicking up the action, or emphasizing quirk over heart.

Writer Taylor Sheridan avoids all the tropes and also draws beautiful relationships between Foster and his sweeter brother (Chris Pine), Bridges and his long-time, beleaguered partner (Gil Birmingham, whose fixed resolve to not allow Bridges to get a rise out of him is one of many pleasures of the script), and all the characters and the milieu.  Director David MacKenzie’s handle is restrained and assured.

One of the best of the year.

Now available at Red Box or Netflix DVD.

The story is now lore. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was attacked outside her Queens apartment. Her assailant stabbed her, ran, and then returned to rape her and finish the job. 37 witnesses turned away. They looked out the window and saw Kitty being stabbed. They heard her pitiful screams. Fearful, callous and/or a sign of the times in our urban hellholes, they drew their blinds and did nothing.

Turns out it’s all bullshit.  While it appears two people may have seen her and elected not to intervene, one did, screaming at her assailant to get away yet unaware that she had been injured.  A neighbor actually did go down to the street (Genovese died in her arms), many of the “witnesses” who are still alive state that they called the police or the extent of their “witnessing” was merely hearing a scream down on the street and then, not hearing more, thinking nothing more of it.

Ah, but what a story. The first half of documentarian James Solomon’s riveting re-investigation – which utilizes interviews, old documentation, photos, footage and animation to put us on that street or in one of the overlooking apartments – destroys the myth. As relayed by one reporter who had his doubts, “it didn’t make any sense” but because it was being propagated by the powerful and highly influential The New York Times, doubts were shelved because “It would have ruined the story.” That story was under the care and feeding of then-editor Abe Rosenthal, who wrote a book about the murder and jealously protected the myth, even going to the extremes of haranguing reporters decades later when the Times re-investigated and came clean on its excesses. In an interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes fame, who was then a radio reporter, his candor is both laudatory and depressing. Yes, he says cheerfully, the story was shot full of holes, but it is a great story and the Times was pushing it. What’s not to like? From there, the story embedded itself in the national psyche, a development Solomon firmly establishes.

This is an important film.  In an age where one would think, given the plethora of alternative sources of news and investigation, that such a meme could not take hold, it’s just the opposite. When the forces want to deliver you a narrative, be it for perceived social good or simple economic gain in the form of extended play, they can be overwhelming.  I remember reading the UVA  rape story in Rolling Stone and with a daughter at college, being incensed and affected.   I then re-read it, and it just seemed . . . thin. There was not one named source, yet, it was so utterly sensational as to be irresistible. Indeed, there was an entire phalanx of denunciations, movements, calls to action, tut-tutting about rape culture and privilege, etc . . .  And the entire story was a fanciful creation of a disturbed, pathetic woman. It does not stand alone.  Remember every false narrative offered in the MOVE bombing in 1980s Philadelphia, the Matthew Shepard murder, the “rape” by the Duke lacrosse team, the recent Ferguson shooting, and on and on.

The second half of the film centers more on the emotional impact of the murder on the Genovese family. It is her tortured brother Bill who is most affected, and he is our guide back into history, but the shrapnel emanating from her death did damage to every member of the family (both parents suffered early strokes and Kitty’s father died very young). On the hopeful side, as he deconstructs the fable, he revives his sister, replacing the myth with a living, breathing neighborhood barmaid who had roots in the neighborhood, including a female lover.

A must see, the film will instill in you a healthy reserve and skepticism of anything you hear in the heat of the moment.  Or, it should.

 

Jane Austen has been treated well and often by Hollywood, but – with the exception of the recently humorous but underwhelming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – she has been treated with a reverence which also brings with it a certain torpidity.  How often have we seen that same dour, tortured Mr. Darcy; the loyal, suffering Elinor Dashwood; or the quick-witted but headstrong Elizabeth Bennet?  Don’t get me wrong.  I love them all, but their portrayals tend to be so bleeding earnest, and of the same stripe, that it begins to feel very rote.

Whit Stillman has written and directed three modern Austenian pictures- Metropolitan (essentially, Mansfield Park), Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco.  When he gets his hands on an actual Austen short story, it is no surprise that Stillman shakes it all up with an original and witheringly funny adaptation.  Rather than dally with dialogue establishing the Austen archetype – handsome rogue, lovestruck hysterical wife, scheming social climber, etc . . . – he gives us the actors in poses, drawing upon the audiences’ presumed familiarity with Austen, so as to get the ball rolling more quickly.

And in the hands of the most vicious and hilarious of all Austen protagonists, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), what a ball it is.  An elegant bloodsucker, Lady Vernon flits from household to household, leaving each in tumult as she wheedles her way into the most advantageous social position she can find.  Her dexterity when she encounters obstacle is noteworthy and her aplomb when thwarted is near winning.  In Beckinsale’s hands, Austen’s wit crackles, and the repartee is fast and furious.  I won’t ruin any of the fun, save to offer my favorite line from the film:  “Americans really have shown themselves to be a nation of ingrates, only by having children can we begin to understand such dynamic.”

Austen’s work always delivers us a fop, a fool, or both, but Beckinsale is almost upstaged by Tom Bennett who plays the utterly unflappable, cheery, and utterly clueless James Martin, one of Lady Vernon’s many targets.  I laughed out loud in all of his scenes.

One of my top five for the year thus far.